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Reviewed by Grant Leishman for Readers' Favorite
The Catbird Seat by Rebecca Hollingsworth is a compelling comparison of race relations in South Carolina from before the Civil War right up to the time of the 2000 furor of the Confederate Flag flying over the State House in Columbia, South Carolina. The story is told from two perspectives: that of a poor, white cotton farmer in the pre-Civil War days, who almost inadvertently ends up owning three slaves, including a giant of a negro by the name of Hutto, and also through the eyes of Gil Culkin, a historian at the Carolinian Library, attached to the University of South Carolina. When protests began against the Confederate Flag, Gil was a little nonplussed as to what the fuss was all about. After all, hadn’t black people had equal rights since the Civil Rights Act of 1964? How could a simple flag evoke such anger and disgust when really it was just a memorial of the courageous, long-dead Confederate soldiers who fought so bravely to protect their homeland? As a historian, though, Gil was trained to look at the human connections and decisions in history that led us to our current place. When she is handed a diary written by a poor cotton farmer from the 1850s to decipher and record, the desire to know and understand more about the black plight and their injustices becomes uppermost in her mind. What will she discover about herself, her family, and her attitudes toward racial equality, not just in the South but all across America?
The Catbird Seat beautifully captures the dilemma facing white people all across the United States who believe that there already is equality between the races and simply cannot understand why black people are still complaining. They are unable to grasp the true meaning of the phrase “white privilege” and believe it is some sinister plot by the black population to gain an unfair advantage over them. They cannot understand why they should be held responsible for righting the wrongs of their forebears. Author Rebecca Hollingsworth does a superb job of presenting Gil Culkin, a smart, accomplished highly thought of academic who suddenly finds herself having to question her standard attitude to race relations, in light of the ongoing protests over the Confederate Flag and the unending attempts over the past century and a half to keep black people at the lowest economic, social, and educational levels. In William Medlin, the cotton farmer, the author presents a typical poor white farmer, whose understanding is of the necessary evil of slavery for the economic prosperity of the South but tempered with a true belief that these black folk are just simple human beings like him. He doesn’t ascribe to the prevailing belief that they are sub-human and worthy only of slavery. His own close encounter with enslaved human beings beautifully exposes the myths and fallacies about black people.
I particularly appreciated the way the author beautifully wove the entire suppressive history of the black population into the story. By combining the two timelines, Gil, as a good historian, was able to trace the pre-Civil War through emancipation, reconstruction, the repression of Jim Crow, the Civil Rights movement of the mid-20th century, right through to the protests against the Confederate Flag in 2000. This is a deeply thought-out and considerate story that anybody who cares about race relations should read. When a book provokes deep thought and searching personal questions from its readers, it has achieved its goal. This book does that and I can highly recommend it.